- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Restaurant Bastille opened in September in the space vacated by Cafe Marianna at the northern end of Royal Street in Alexandria. It shares a one-story building with Abaca Imports, where Asian furniture, decorative objects and cookbooks are for sale.

In fine weather, the patio is attractive and welcoming. With minimal changes to the restaurant’s decor, including the addition of paintings by local artist Susan Finsen, the two young owners — chef Christophe Poteaux and pastry chef Michelle Garbee — offer a different menu, moving from the Louisiana style of Cafe Marianna to contemporary French bistro cooking with Mediterranean influences. The owners were formerly at Aquarelle at Watergate, he as executive chef and she as executive pastry chef.

Bastille is sunny and cheerful at lunchtime; in the evening the ceiling lights are too harsh; that and an absence of tablecloths deprive the place of the cozy atmosphere of the typical French bistro.

The name of the restaurant was chosen by Mr. Poteaux because of its significance in French history: The storming of the Bastille has become the symbol of French liberty, equality and fraternity — a new beginning and hope for the future.

He chose the Gallic rooster as the emblem for his restaurant because the rooster represents France, with a play on the Latin word gallus for the rooster and the inhabitants of Gaul.

Atmosphere and name are minor elements. What’s important is what comes out of the kitchen. Bastille’s menu is ambitious, and the results vary. House-made duck charcuterie includes a delicious stuffed leg; tasty and mild duck prosciutto (although it’s a bit tough); and ice-cold, overly fatty rillettes.

An arugula salad topped with a warm round of goat cheese that has been breaded and fried is a fine light appetizer. The salad includes a quartered artichoke heart, which despite the menu’s description of artichokes poivrade, was lacking any suggestion of pepper.

Calamari beignets could be delicious. Bastille’s version consists of minuscule bits of calamari and shrimp so heavily battered that any taste of seafood is lost. The dip accompanying the fritters is an excellent rich yogurt spiced with Moroccan harissa.

Other first courses include an artisanal cheese plate, foie gras, crab and crawfish cake with a piquillo pepper coulis, and an escabeche of sea scallops with pickled vegetables. Poached mussels in white wine are excellent. The mussels are small, fresh and tender; the sauce, with just a touch of cream, is well prepared, albeit oversalted. What was missing was crusty bread to dip into the sauce. The french fries that come with the mussels were hot and deliciously chewy rather than crisp.

Oversalting — alas, the bane of many restaurant kitchens — is similarly a problem with the eggplant caponata served with a main-course trio of sea scallops. The scallops were plump and nicely prepared. The caponata, a mix of eggplant, onions, raisins lightly perfumed with cumin, was both too salty for the tongue and too sweet to complement the scallops. The quartered artichoke heart in the dish was not braised, as the menu promises, but, like the artichoke in the salad, merely an addition to the dish. It’s a combination of elements that don’t quite work together.

Braised pork shoulder, which would have profited from being less fat and more tender, is served on a bed of Sicilian relish, a mix of tiny diced vegetables fragrant with lemon zest, and accompanied by excellent rosemary polenta.

Other main courses are grilled branzino (sea bass) fillets with fennel marmalade; Scottish salmon with braised fennel; traditional French chicken roasted with 40 cloves of garlic; duck breast with porcini mushrooms; grilled sausage with radicchio, and a grilled steak with french fries.

The chef offers a three-course pre-theater menu, available from 5 to 7 p.m. for $30, and a four-course tasting menu for $48. Wine pairings are available for an additional $25.

At lunchtime, the menu includes a small savory tart, similar to a quiche, served with a lightly dressed salad. At a recent lunch, the tart included small pieces of duck. The flavor was fine, but the pastry was tough, as if it had been reheated. The lunch menu also offers several sandwiches, including a croque monsieur, the French version of a grilled ham and cheese, made with Virginia ham and Vermont cheddar. Bastille’s fall lunch menu includes a fish of the day and a grilled hanger steak.

Desserts are good. A tarte Tatin, like the savory tart, had a crust that was no longer crisp and fresh, but the apples were nicely caramelized and topped with a spoonful of creme fraiche. The tartness of the cream sets off the sweetness of the apples beautifully.

A moderately rich chocolate marquise is served with a tiny dice of mixed fresh fruit and a small salted, rather than sugared, cookie. New on the menu are a poached pear with hazelnut filling and gingerbread cake.

Bastille’s wine list consists almost entirely of French wines. There’s a nice selection of wines by the glass, available in both three- and six-ounce sizes. Waiters are eager to please, but seem a bit overworked even when the restaurant is not full.

Bastille is still very new, and given the talents exhibited by Mr. Poteaux at Aquarelle, he will find his stride. Bastille is off to a good start, with the best to come.

RESTAURANT: Bastille, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria; 703/519-3776

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; dinner 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and until 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: Starters $6 to $7 (lunch), $6 to $9 (dinner); main courses $9 to $16 (lunch), $16 to $25 (dinner); desserts $6

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Ample street parking and restaurant parking lot

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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